McMorris, Gasser lead snowboard big air qualifying Sunday at world championships

A rider airs it out during the snowboard big air qualifier at the world championships on Sunday, March 14, 2021, at Buttermilk Ski Area in Aspen. Photo by Tamara Susa/Aspen Skiing Co.

Mark McMorris bounced back from his slopestyle shortcomings to make big air finals, while Anna Gasser led a strong contingent of women in Sunday’s qualifying ahead of the final events of the world championships at Buttermilk Ski Area in Aspen.

McMorris, the Canadian superstar and Winter X Games medals record holder, was among the biggest surprises to not have qualified for slopestyle finals earlier in the week, but scored 92.75 on the first of his two big air qualifying runs on a tricky jump Sunday to lead the men.

Fresh snow overnight — Buttermilk officially recorded 9 inches — and some wind made for less than ideal conditions, but the athletes said the impact was surprisingly minor and they were still able to get speed and throw down their best tricks once the competitions got started.

Aspen Skiing Co. and U.S. Ski & Snowboard built the course with the potential for snow in mind, creating longer runways for more speed opportunities.

“I’m glad we got it off the ground today,” McMorris said. “I’m glad we all have enough speed to do some good tricks and get a good riding level.”

Nearly 60 men competed in two big air qualifying heats Sunday, with 12 making it through to Tuesday’s final. McMorris led Heat 2, with fellow Canadian Max Parrot finishing in second (90.50), Norway’s Marcus Kleveland in third (88.75), Sweden’s Niklas Mattsson in fourth (84.50), Norway’s Staale Sandbech in fifth (84.25) and Germany’s Leon Guetl in sixth (83.50).

Kleveland won the men’s snowboard slopestyle contest on Friday and had to deliver on his second and final run of big air qualifying to advance after crashing on his first.

“I feel like I need the nerves to be up there,” Kleveland said. “It felt really good to land the second one.”

Kleveland also won the men’s big air contest at X Games Aspen in January.

Heat 1 of the men’s big air qualifier Sunday was led by Finland’s Rene Rinnekangas with 90. Rinnekangas was third in slopestyle on Friday.

Second in qualifying was the lone American to make finals in Judd Henkes (86.50), followed in third by Japan’s Kaito Hamada (85.25). In fourth was Japan’s Ruki Tobita (84.50), in fifth Italy’s Emiliano Lauzi (84.25) and in sixth Australia’s Matthew Cox (83.50).

California’s Henkes, who won slopestyle bronze at worlds in 2019, officially finished 48th out of 54 athletes to at least start worlds slopestyle qualifying on Wednesday.

“I didn’t have the best showing in slopestyle,” the 19-year-old Henkes said. “Kind of going through a little contest slump — a mental battle. But I’m stoked to land something today in the big air.”

Among the notable names to not make big air finals is Canada’s Sebastien Toutant, the reigning Olympic gold medalist in the discipline. Overall, it wasn’t a great showing from the Americans, as Lyon Farrell, Chris Corning, Dusty Henricksen and Red Gerard all came up short in qualifying.

Big tricks expected in women’s final

Gasser, the reigning Olympic gold medalist in women’s big air snowboarding, scored 92.75 on her second run to lead a field of 26 women to start Sunday’s single-heat qualifier. She admitted to needing to bring out bigger tricks than usual for a qualifier, as her competitors weren’t holding back.

Anna Gasser poses for the camera during the snowboard big air qualifier at the world championships on Sunday, March 14, 2021, at Buttermilk Ski Area in Aspen. Photo by Mark Clavin/U.S. Ski & Snowboard.

“I was really nervous for this event. The girls are stepping it up big time this year,” Gasser said. “I’m so excited for finals. I think we are going to see a really good show. … I know a lot of girls are capable of big tricks and I have some things I want to try if everything works out.”

Canada’s Laurie Blouin was second in qualifying with 92.25, while Friday’s slopestyle champion, New Zealand’s Zoi Sadowski-Synnott, qualified third in 90.75.

“It was a lot better than expected on the jump. A lot more speed than initially thought, and the more we rode it, the faster it got. So I was sending it pretty deep all practice,” Sadowski-Synnott said of the weather impacts. “It would be great to get the double gold, of course, but my goal is to really do a trick that I’ve never done in finals and keep that consistent season going.”

Also making the eight-woman finals are Japan’s Reira Iwabuchi (90), Japan’s Kokomo Murase (88), Australia’s Tess Coady (87.50), Japan’s Miyabi Onitsuka (86.50) and Tahoe’s Jamie Anderson (77.50).

Anderson, who has more Winter X Games medals (19) than anyone in history other than McMorris (20), won her first big air gold at X Games in January, holding off Onitsuka (silver) and Sadowski-Synnott (bronze). Anderson also is the reigning Olympic silver medalist in big air, while Sadowski-Synnott won bronze in 2018 behind Gasser’s gold.

The men’s and women’s ski big air qualifiers are scheduled for Monday at Buttermilk, while the 2021 world championships will wrap up Tuesday with both the ski and snowboard big air finals for men and women.

After a day break, the World Cup and U.S. Grand Prix competition begins Thursday with the first qualifiers.